By James Edwards

You can stick your em-dash up your dot dot dot

By James Edwards

So once again I find myself intensely irritated by a growing wave of practice that is touted as correct when its correctness is entirely arbitrary. I’m talking about the finer points of typography.

A recent post by Christopher Phin, called Top Ten Typographic Mistakes Everyone Makes really exemplified that for me (sorry Chris, nothing personal!) with remarks like this:

there’s little chance that using a period instead of an interpunct will obscure or confuse your meaning – but they are nevertheless wrong

And this:

those aren’t proper quote marks; they should be sixty-six and ninety-nine quotes

The use of interpunct is not more correct than period, the use of straight quotes is not wrong, and (my personal bugbear) the use of three dots instead of ellipses is perfectly fine. Exactly as with grammar, the details we’re talking about here are not rules, they are conventions, and no more right or wrong than the collective will that made them conventional.

We see similar examples in grammar, for example over split-infinitives. According to the prescribed rules of grammar it’s wrong to split an English infinitive: to go boldly rather than to boldly go. But language is a living thing and it changes all the time. Really, the finer points of grammar are arbitrary; grammar should serve only to make sure that language is collectively understood. To correct grammatical mistakes in order to ensure clarity and understanding is one thing, but to correct them simply in order to adhere to an arbitrary set of rules is just anal.

And I feel the same way about typography. Who cares what kind of quotes you use, what kind of dashes, or whether you put ellipsis or three dots? Who even notices the difference, apart from typography nazis?

The only possible reason I can see for caring about this is accessibility, and how assistive technologies describe particular characters.

But as Jason Kiss’ recent research into how character references are spoken by popular screenreaders shows, there is huge variation and discrepancy in how many characters are handled, such a discrepancy that there cannot be a strong argument for using them based on this behavior alone. But even if there were, I suggest it might be counter-productive.

I mean who the hell knows what ellipsis means? Conversely who understands what dot dot dot means? Everybody understands the latter, but very few understand the former. And what is an ellipsis after all, other than a formalization of three dots?

So I won’t use uncommon typographical symbols. I think the fewer different characters there are, the better our collective understanding will be. For me there is only one kind of double-quote mark, one kind of period, and it’s dot dot dot every time.

  • georgina

    I agree. Who cares? Personally, I prefer plain text, sans special characters, all the way. From a design perspective, of course, if your chosen fontface has wildly attractive curly quotes, m dashes, or ellipses, then I can see why you’d choose to use them for aesthetic reasons. But if not, and there’s no justification accessibility-wise, why worry whether you’re using straight or curly quotes? Three dots or an ellipsis?

    On the split infinitive point (which, obviously, I can’t let slip by unremarked), many believe the split infinitive to be a figment of “proper” grammarians’ imagination.

  • akinas

    I sure as hell hope that this post is just a flamebait.

    On the odd chance that it isn’t.
    There are hundreds of books written about typography and to dismiss them all just because your keyboard does not have the keys for proper quote marks is plain childish.

  • What do you mean by “proper” ?

  • Jones

    Proper punctuation is convention in as much as web “standards” are. It is perfectly acceptable to ignore them, but if you want to maintain consistency across multiple parties, it is better to be as thorough as possible.

  • Neil Ford

    What a ridiculous article. “Typography nazis” ffs? Moronic…

  • From TFA, and your post:

    those aren’t proper quote marks; they should be sixty-six and ninety-nine quotes

  • Absolutely! As a writer, I’m vastly irritated at people who are obsessed with what they consider ‘proper’ grammar rather than elegance and communication.

    The split-infinitives ‘rule’ is an excellent example. The ‘rule’ comes from the attempt to formalize English to Latin grammar, an idea so wretchedly ridiculous that it should be treated with contempt whenever it’s mentioned.

    If you’re communicating and people understand you, you’ve got your grammar right. If they don’t, you’ve got it wrong. That’s all that matters.

  • Yeah but I was quoting somebody else. I’m asking *you* what you mean by “proper” because you used the word yourself.

    When you talk about proper quote marks, what is proper about them? And what is improper about straight marks?

  • It’s a bit of a bad sign when you are saying “Who cares about grammar?” – this is the syntax of the English language that we are talking about, not it’s grammar. Surely that alone should be enough of a reason for any programmar to care a little bit?
    Also, referring to the ‘rules of grammar’ as only conventions, is much like stating that the W3C specs are ‘only proposals’. Sure, you can drop a closing tag and the world won’t end because of it, but is it wrong? …

  • Stephen

    I was amused when a click to the “name” field JavaScript-bombarded me with a pop-up ad. Really brought me back, thanks guys. I, of course, clicked it. It was an ingenious marketing technique that just swallowed me up as a customer. What was it for again?

    As far as this discussion goes, it’s like asking: who cares if you wear a suit? If it’s a formal or professional event, some people most certainly will care. If it’s not, most won’t.

    If you’re trying to sell me design and you’re not using curly quotation marks on your site, it better be for a good reason (and not “I don’t know how to”), or I’m going to pass. If you’re trying to present me with “professional” writing (i.e. something that has been through an editing/revising process, something that was paid for and was probably printed somewhere), I expect the typography to represent the writing.

    So what’s the difference with some of the easier ones? Curly quotations are quick ways of knowing where you are in a passage (the beginning and the end), and given how readers on the web tend to scan, rather than read in full, these curly hints do more good than bad. Ellipses are also more readable than three dots, depending on the font, because the spacing is internal, whereas three dots can quite easily bleed together.

    Of course, if I came across your LiveJournal, I probably wouldn’t expect you to know your typography. If you’re running a professional ‘zine, though, I’m not buying it.

  • If I were to find out what proper quotation marks are I’d open any book on typography. Or at least any book with quotation marks in it. Did you ever see straight quotes ” used as quotation marks in a Harry Potter novel? No, that’s because it’s an improper use of a symbol.
    Any trade has rules. Typography is no exception. Nobody is enforcing these rules, but adhering to them is a sign of professionalism.

  • locomotivate

    Sure, a lot of these things are fiddly and not necessary, but subtle details like this help to truly complete a work.
    There are “best practices” in many areas. It seems like you’re having a bad time and shoving the details many regard as important into the inaccessible bin. Regarding the character reference audio translations, it doesn’t seem like the problem is as bad as it could be (aside from the fact that windows’ doesn’t recognise anything).

  • Stevie D

    It all depends if you want your work to look professional and high-quality.

    You might not think it makes any difference whether you use a prime or a quote, and at a conscious level, your readers might not either. But at a subconscious level, some people will notice if things aren’t quite right, and that will impact on the impression that your document gives.

    Just like an occasional typo or grammar slip, uneven font size or kerning, items slightly out of alignment or any number of other ‘mistakes’, using typographical hacks instead of the correct symbols will make your document look unprofessional, shoddy, careless, and as though it is written by someone who doesn’t know and doesn’t care.

    No, not everyone will pick up on the subtle cues, and not everyone will be bothered by them. But if you are aiming your work at a literate and educated audience, a significant proportion will.

    It depends on your work ethic. If you’re happy with “good enough”, then hacks and bodges may suffice. If you want to do the job properly, do it properly – it’s not like it’s difficult.

  • locomotivate

    Right on Stevie!

  • Anonymous

    I am often a promoter of strict adherence to grammatical conventions, despite making “mistakes” frequently myself (I admit now that I do not know all the rules anyway). But the OP makes an excellent point: why be a nazi about “errors” that don’t interfere with understanding?

    My view is that this sort of minutiae is decorative (literally where typography is concerned). Inarguably, these details enhance the beauty and face value of your text, but one might takes side with James in saying that they are functionally moot. Leaving these details out isn’t necessarily sloppy or wrong, but it’s not “right” either; it’s just okay. Practically speaking, your work isn’t unrefined, but less refined.

    Should we throw away all the typography books in the world and banish the not-so-oft-used symbols from our character sets? Only if you’re a fan of Newspeak.

    I wonder if Orwell ever thought of Newtypo… (DOT DOT DOT)

  • prestel

    The above anonymous post is mine. I typed my login info and then clicked Submit Comment instead of Login :-

  • I try to remember that the purpose of language is to communicate. consistent rules can help us communicate. Many of the points mentioned above do significantly interfere with communication.

    If you extend Steve Krug’s thesis if “Don’t Make Me think to Grammar” then you can get some perspective. Languages change over time. However, one has to think whether or not these changes interfere with communication. I have not scientifically tested this, but I do suspect that people will not read “dot dot dot” and an ellipsis any differently, however, 66 and 99 quotes will be easier to follow than straight quotes especially in quote heavy text.

    I think that more work should be done on how real people are interpreting conventions than whether a convention is right or wrong . (or ‘proper’, “proper”, “proper”)

  • morphail

    When it comes to grammar, usage books do not make the rules, populations do.

    When it comes to punctuation, it is perhaps not so clear-cut, because orthography is artificial, and punctuation is the most artificial part of orthography.

    On the other hand, English punctuation is based on a group of conventions that arose at different times to meet different needs. They have always been changing, and they will change in the future. So if everyone uses straight quotes instead of smart quotes, then straight quotes are the convention.

    On the other hand, not everyone is using straight quotes. Which convention to follow depends on your medium and audience.

  • Yet again I completely agree with u …

    Bit of a rant though ;)

  • Ian Stewart

    I don’t mean this from the perspective of spelling troll or anything like that: being proud of ignorance is weird.

  • Matt Wilcox

    Proper typography (by which I mean the agrees upon characters) is a nicety. There is nothing wrong with using straight quotes and three dots. No one should be called down for it (who isn’t a typographer). But, isn’t it nice to do things properly?

    If you choose to care about good presentation, then really you should care about using the right characters in the right places. But only if you choose to care. No one will gain greater understanding by using ‘proper’ typography, and no one is going to lose understanding by using ‘improper’ typography. But one certainly looks more professional than the other. Pick up a book, you’ll always see the correct typography. It makes it look professional. It adds ‘authenticity’. But it doesn’t make a damn of difference to the understanding of the content.

    Choose to care about it, or choose not to. It doesn’t matter – but please, don’t preach about it to others.

  • I tend to be a bit of an extremist in all my ways, and while I have so far agreed with all the posts I’ve read by you, brothercake, I must say I disagree with this one. I have to agree with akinas, locomotivate and Stevie D here. If I really don’t care about the type of quotes I use, then I really shouldn’t care about whether I serve true XHTML (application/xhtml+xml) or gobbledygook (text/html). I shouldn’t care whether my javascript is littered with global variables, so long as everything works.

    Again, I’m a little extreme, and while I don’t go to the ultimate extremes, I do try to take a little care about such things, as mundane as they seem. They do add a touch of professionalism and show that you take pride in your work.

  • care

    Carebook updated.

  • Opally

    I’m afraid that some newly-arrived technocrats are oblivious of the preceding several-hundred years of typography. Rather than blow off “conventions” as having no merit, wouldn’t it behoove them to recognize their own ignorance and educate themselves? Once one understands correct usage and the history and context for such usage, THEN one is qualified to comment on the evolution of typography into electronic media.

    No, curly quotes are NOT the same thing as straight quotes. No, an em-dash is NOT the same thing as a hyphen.

  • Jubarr

    Hey man, there’s a whole word beyond the web…

  • Jubarr

    I totally agree with Opally

  • I noticed a few slippery slope arguments here:

    If I really don’t care about the type of quotes I use, then I really shouldn’t care about whether I serve true XHTML (application/xhtml+xml) or gobbledygook (text/html).

    One should care about your XHTML because a variety of machines are parsing it. The quotes are read by humans, who have a slightly less rigid view of the universe. Its comparing apples and oranges.

    I admit personally to a perverse pleasure in using the typographic nicities when I can — The same persnickity-ness which leads me to want to have tidy code perhaps.

    But I say question away. These “rules” are typographical conventions that have been carried along by its practitioners. (I’ve had some great type teachers, so don’t say I ain’t educated :-) They are not absolutes (look at some other languages for instance, not everyone uses the same conventions even).

    And there are plenty of other more important typographical conventions that help readability (leading, line length, etc).

  • Please do not feed the troll.

  • This post was extremely ignorant. It seems as if the writer never bothered to look up the reasons for these differences. And it seems that the computer keyboard is helping to perpetuate the miss-use of characters out of sheer laziness. Like Jones above mentioned, it is the same as promoting web standards when you can get by without type an ending p tag.

    Prime marks are what your keyboard comes with, they are used to denote inches and feet. Em dash is used for a longer break in thought, usually in the middle of a sentence.


  • Anonymous

    um – straight quotes when used after a number signify a measurement

    ie 5’6″
    that’s 5 feet 6 inches

    angled quotes provide a visual cue to the reader that this is either the start or end of the speech or quote – therefore they are adding semantic value

    as for the ellipsis who cares – bring back ffl ligatures I say

  • I had to google ‘interpunct’. Now I know!

    To be pedantic: I think that the use of an em-dash to indicate a pause is sloppy, although I may do it myself it wouldn’t do for a formal essay.

    As for the ‘prime marks’ on keyboards, it’s not laziness. Those are clearly provided for use as quotes / apostrophes. Certainly, on my keyboards (mac) there is no curly quote key. Using curly quotes on a web page seems to require a fair amount of extra shennanigans. I’d say it was fairly obvious that for web stuff it was intended / expected that straight quotes would be the norm. I’d be fascinated to hear if anyone knows more about this.

    As for dots vs ellipsis: who cares?

  • Seems to come down to two scenarios:
    1) If you are doing something that needs a “professional” look/feel, then use the correct codes.
    2) If you are doing anything else, then let your tool do it for you. Several wysiwyg editors seem to apply the correct symbol for you. You can also add Markdown or Textile, which can also do that for you. And if that’s too much effort, well, no one’s likely going to care that you don’t care.

    And if you’re the developer, then it matters only what your client thinks, not you, so all of this becomes completely pointless.

  • Jeff

    Others have made most of my points for me about typographic conventions and their importance, but you did also mention accessibility and it’s one of the only points you got right (though you struck only a glancing blow).

    The specific point of all this is not conformance with linguistic or typographic conventions, but conformance with the XML standards that have been built on those conventions. It’s the reason we may be better off with UTF-8 than with ISO-8859-1, because Unicode is more comprehensive and allows us to be more precise and more flexible at the same time. But not if we don’t want to be. It’s our choice, and our failure to understand the reason for getting it right doesn’t mean there is no reason.

    Who cares? Anyone who cares about things like portability, extensibility and standards-compliance. If that’s not you, James, your credibility as an “outspoken advocate of standards-based development” just slipped about 12 rungs on the ladder with me.

  • Okay .. I’ll bite :P

    If typography is as important as compliance to markup standards, then show me an example where this impact is clear. Show me something where “improper” use of typography affects machine interoperability the way invalid markup does. Show me an example where accessibility is genuinely affected, to the extent that users of assistive technologies are unable to grock the meaning of text the same as other users.

    UTF-8 is preferable as an encoding because it allows for easier internationalization; i’ve never heard ease of access to obscure symbols touted as a reason for using it.

    And if typography deserves to be place on the same pedestal as markup compliance, then show me a single authorative source for the web that defines this…

  • Paintworkz Web Design

    It all depends on whom you are targeting.

  • CascadingIdiot

    You really just sound like a kid whining. Seriously. Why would you turn down the chance to make your content more sophisticated? Maybe it’s the influence of txtng and rofling all over the place. Sure, typography on the web in general, is atrocious. Do you ever use ‘line-height’ in CSS? That’s called ‘leading’ in the real world. It’s indispensable for readability of content, and it’s roots are the same as those you’ve so eloquently poo-poo’d.

  • CascadingIdiot

    Markup compliance and proper typography come from different realms, and each has it’s own authoritative source. In print, the authoritative source of proper typography is Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style.

    Deserves? Why the moral component? You can’t expect to ask a bunch of web developers about typography and get an adequate answer. While their job is important, typography is another man’s specialty. It’s about quality. One day we’ll get all the CSS controls we need for it, but we have enough now, like ellipses, to do it right. Machine interoperability? Once again, irrelevant to the discussion.

  • Why would you turn down the chance to make your content more sophisticated?

    You make it sound like sophistication is an ends in itself, and something to always aspire to. Surely if we happen to build something that is sophisticated, it’s only a byproduct of what we are trying to achieve?

    Likewise, surely if there’s a way of achieving identical outcomes with a simpler solution, we’d take that option?

  • PhillipB

    Of course, once IE catches up with FF and co, then the quotation tag will be usable and all the quote marks will be perfect!

    Meanwhile, there are hacks that will do the job, such as Long Live the Q Tag.

    And, yes, I do use &hellip, &mdash, etc, because I read Lynne Truss’ book – Eats Shoots and Leaves

  • hutchsky

    Hore-A Wii kan git rid uv ijookashun nouw!! etts aleetisst nazi kraap

  • PhilTilson

    The most frequent question seems to be “Who cares?” and the answer is simple. There are two kinds of reader: those who don’t bother about this kind of thing and those that do. The former won’t care whether you split infinitives, use em-dashes or curly quotes or write “The choice is your’s” when you mean “The choice is yours”. Nor will they notice if everything you write is perfect.

    However, the latter will! So why alienate half your potential audience by failing to adhere to the conventions? Do it wrong and half your audience will be put off to a greater or lesser extent; do it right and nobody will be put off! Simple, really.

    And as for the “Language is developing all the time” argument, this is sadly true. So every day I hear people say “He shouldn’t of done it” or, even worse, “I done it right”. Maybe this doesn’t matter to you, but trust me, it really matters to a lot of people, and I don’t want them to think that I’m too ignorant or too lazy to get it right.

    So, in short, I disagree with almost everything that you wrote, James!

  • sldesigns

    “the man was identified at being6’3″”

    For me, that sentence is reason enough.

    The irony is that quotes in one of these replies uses the proper tags

    and I do mean proper. We’ve been seeing them since we could read.

  • Priester

    I agree with you. I’m in love with everything about typography—I’m the sort of person who was genuinely excited about the new Helvetica documentary—but the examples you mention are the domain of older manager types who read “The Mac is Not a Typewriter” some time in the 80s. They make me think of the book The Peter Principal—it describes the natural tendency to focus on tertiary, easy-to-control issues when your level of incompetence prevents you from adding real value. I’ve seen these warriors add en-dashes to the last names of people who didn’t even know they were entitled to them! Hell, Emigre magazine is as old as desktop publishing but these folks can still get excited about grid systems.

  • Danno

    While I agree that it’s important to remember that language is a living organism, it is likewise important to not make that stance an excuse for plain old laziness.

Get the latest in Front-end, once a week, for free.